Lt Col John Henry Patterson and the Tsavo Lions

While trolling for articles on hunting firearms for this month’s newsletter I came across the true story of Lt Col Patterson and the Tsayo Lions.  Being a great fan of the movie Ghost in the Darkness, I found myself needing to know the true story, so here it is.

(10 November 1867 – 18 June 1947), known as J. H. Patterson, was an Anglo-Irish soldier, hunter, author and Christian Zionist, best known for his book The Man-Eaters of Tsavo (1907), which details his experiences while building a railway bridge over the Tsavo river in British East Africa (now Kenya) in 1898–99.  

Lieutenant-Colonel John Henry Patterson, DSO

In the First World War, Patterson was the commander of the Jewish Legion, “the first Jewish fighting force in nearly two millennia”, and has been described as the godfather of the modern Israel Defense Forces.

Patterson was born in 1867 in Forgney, Ballymahon, County Longford, Ireland, to a Protestant father and Roman Catholic mother.  He joined the British Army at the age of seventeen and eventually attained the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).  He finally retired from the military in 1920.

In 1898, Patterson was commissioned by the Uganda Railway committee in London to oversee the construction of a railway bridge over the Tsavo River in present-day Kenya.  He arrived at the site in March of that year.  Almost immediately after Patterson’s arrival, lion attacks began to take place on the workforce, with the lions dragging men out of their tents at night and feeding on their victims.  Despite the building of thorn barriers (bomas) around the camps, bonfires at night, and strict after-dark curfews, the attacks escalated dramatically, to the point where the bridge construction eventually ceased due to a fearful, mass departure by the workers.  Along with the obvious financial consequences of the work stoppage, Patterson faced the challenge of maintaining his authority and even his personal safety at this remote site against the increasingly hostile and superstitious workers, many of whom were convinced that the lions were in fact evil spirits, come to punish those who worked at Tsavo, and that he was the cause of the misfortune because the attacks had coincided with his arrival.

The man-eating behaviour was considered highly unusual for lions and was eventually confirmed to be the work of a pair of rogue males, who were believed to be responsible for as many as 140 deaths.  Railway records officially attribute only 28 worker deaths to the lions, but the predators were also reported to have killed a significant number of local people of which no official record was ever kept, which attributed to the railway’s smaller record.

Tsavo male lions look very different from the Serengeti Lions we generally see in Zoos or on the TV.  The most vigorous Serengeti males sport large dark manes, while in Tsavo they have short, thin manes or none at all.  This is due to the shortage of water.  Tsavo is hotter and drier than the Serengeti, and a male with a heavy mane “would squander his daily water allowance simply panting under a bush, with none to spare for patrolling his territory, hunting or finding mates.”

Various theories have been put forward to account for the lions’ man-eating behaviour: poor burial practices, low populations of food source animals due to disease, etc.  There was a slave trade route through the area, which contributed to a considerable number of abandoned bodies.  Patterson reported seeing considerable instances of unburied human remains and open graves in the area, and it is believed that the lions (which, like most predators, will readily scavenge for food) adapted to this abundant, accessible food supply and eventually turned to humans as their primary food source.  One of the lion’s skulls was found to have a badly abscessed canine tooth that could have hindered normal hunting behaviour.  However, this hypothesis accounts for the behaviour of only one of the lions involved, and Patterson himself personally disclaimed it, saying he had damaged the tooth.

With his reputation, livelihood, and safety at stake, Patterson, an experienced tiger hunter from his military service in India, undertook an extensive effort to deal with the crisis.  After months of attempts and near misses, he finally killed the first lion on the night of 9 December 1898 and the second one on the morning of 29 December (narrowly escaping death when the wounded animal charged him).  The lions were maneless like many others in the Tsavo area, and both were exceptionally large.  Each lion was over nine feet long from nose to tip of tail and required at least eight men to carry it back to the camp.

Val Kilmer as Patterson in a gripping  scene from Ghost in the darkness

Colonel Patterson with the first Tsavo lion – killed 9 December 1898

The workers and local people immediately declared Patterson a hero, and word of the event quickly spread far and wide, as evidenced by the subsequent telegrams of congratulations he received.  Word of the incident was even mentioned in the House of Lords, by the Prime Minister Lord Salisbury.

With the man-eater threat finally eliminated, the workforce returned and the Tsavo railway bridge was completed on 7 February 1899.  Although the rails were destroyed by German soldiers during the First World War, the stone foundations were left standing and the bridge was subsequently repaired.  The workers, who in earlier months had all but threatened to kill him, presented Patterson with a silver bowl in appreciation for the risks he had undertaken on their behalf, with the following inscription:

“SIR, – We, your Overseer, Timekeepers, Mistaris and Workmen, present you with this bowl as a token of our gratitude to you for your bravery in killing two-man-eating lions at great risk to your own life, thereby saving us from the fate of being devoured by these terrible monsters who nightly broke into our tents and took our fellow-workers from our side. In presenting you with this bowl, we all add our prayers for your long life, happiness and prosperity. We shall ever remain, Sir, Your grateful servants,  Baboo PURSHOTAM HURJEE PURMAR, Overseer and Clerk of Works, on behalf of your Workmen. Dated at Tsavo, January 30, 1899.”

Patterson considered the bowl to be his most highly prized and hardest won trophy.  In 1907, he published his first book, The Man-eaters of Tsavo, which documented his adventures during his time there.  It was the basis for three films; Bwana Devil (1953), Killers of Kilimanjaro(1959) and the 1996 Paramount Pictures film, The Ghost and the Darkness, starring Val Kilmer(as Patterson) and Michael Douglas (as the fictional character “Remington”).

In 1924, after speaking at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois, Patterson agreed to sell the Tsavo lion skins and skulls to the museum for the then sizeable sum of $5,000.  The lion skins were then stuffed and are now on permanent display along with the original skulls.  The reconstructed lions are actually smaller than their original size, due to their skins’ having been originally trimmed for use as trophy rugs in Patterson’s house.

From his book, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, Patterson says of his firearms, “the battery, to be sufficient for all needs, should consist of a .450 express, a .303 sporting rifle, and a 12-bore shot gun; and I should consider 250 rounds of .450 (50 hard and 200 soft), 300 rounds of .303 (100 hard and 200 soft), and 500 12-bore shot cartridges of say, the 6 and 8 sizes, sufficient for a three months’ trip. Leather bandoliers to carry 50 each of these different cartridges would also prove very useful.”

In the book, he doesn’t say what gun he used to shoot the first lion, only that he was on a hunting platform and his first shot entered in the area of the shoulder and penetrated to the heart.  On the second lion, he got six hits.  The first three were from the .303 rifle.  The next shot he fired from the .450 from a tree, and the final two he fired head on into the lion’s head and body, also with the .450, during its final charge.  He said the rounds that killed it were loaded with Martini bullets.

In the film, Patterson (Val Kilmer), used a BSA Lee-Speed Sporter rifle as his primary firearm.  It looks to have a 26-inch barrel and is likely chambered for .303 British, which is in keeping with Patterson’s writings. The rifle was a popular option for British officers and hunters who couldn’t afford expensive double-barrel rifles.  The Lee-Speeds used the same action and ammunition as the Lee-Enfield bolt action, the British service rifle at the time.

The Lee-Speed rifle was a bolt action rifle based on James Paris Lee’s rear-locking bolt system and detachable magazine. Early models were fitted with barrels using the radiused rifling designed by William Ellis Metford. 

Lee-Speed Rifle & Carbine

The actual Tsavo lions in the Field Museum in Chicago

Heritage Arms Member – Cathey Brimage

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